Lovie Smith's team must navigate a difficult closing stretch if they want to go to a second straight bowl game
Despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the Big Ten is hoping to have a football season of some sort in 2020. That's why the league recently announced that all fall sports, including football, will be limited to strictly conference games for the 2020-21 school year. This has resulted in the removal of three games from the Illinois Fighting Illini's original schedule. The school has considered adding a 10th conference matchup, but that remains to be seen.
If Lovie Smith's team is able to play this year, he'll have a veteran team full of returning players on the field. The talent is certainly there, but posting consecutive winning seasons will be no easy task. Especially since the Illini are limited to just Big Ten competition. In ranking this year's games from easiest to toughest, here is how Illinois' schedule plays out.
9. Oct. 3 at Rutgers
The Illini have won three of the last four meetings with the Scarlett Knights by a combined score of 124-69, as Rutgers continues to struggle with their acclimation to the Big Ten.
8. Nov. 14 at Indiana
Although this will be Illinois' first meeting with the Hoosiers since 2017, and their first trip to Bloomington since 2013, the Illini are 4-4 in their last eight games with Indiana. On the flip side, Indiana is 3-3 in their last six games against the Big Ten West. It's an even matchup, at least, on paper.
7. Oct. 17 vs. Purdue
When the Illini defeated the Boilermakers in West Lafayette last season, it broke a three-game losing streak in the series. Illinois' record against Purdue currently stands at 45-44-6.
6. Oct. 10 at Nebraska
The Fighting Illini only have one win against the Cornhuskers since they joined the Big Ten in 2015. Overall, Illinois is 3-13-1 against Nebraska. Smith's team must defeat the pesky Huskers' in order to establish themselves in the division.
5. Oct. 24 vs. Minnesota
Illinois has lost seven of their last nine to the Golden Gophers, who are coming off of their best season in school history. The Gophers are considered a favorite to win the division this season.
4. Nov. 7 vs. Iowa
The Illini have lost six in a row to Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes, who are annual contenders for the Big Ten West championship. Illinois was able to keep last season's game in Iowa City within one score for the entire contest until Keith Duncan's field goal made it a 9-point game with under three minutes to go.
3. Oct. 31 at Wisconsin
Last year's upset of the Badgers at Memorial Stadium knocked them out of the College Football Playoff hunt. Not only does Wisconsin have revenge on their minds in 2020, they also have history on their side as well. The Illini (0-7 ) haven't won at Camp Randall Stadium since 2002.
2. Nov. 28 at Northwestern
The Illini are looking to break a five-game losing streak to the Wildcats. They especially have a bad taste in their mouths after last year's loss, in which they were heavily favored but still fell to a Northwestern team that was very shorthanded due to injuries. Another loss to NU would mark six straight to their archrivals, which would set a new record in the series.
1. Nov. 21 vs. Ohio State
This will be the final Illini home game of the year, and it couldn't come against a more difficult opponent. While the Illini would love to recreate the upset of 2007, the reality is that the powerhouse Buckeyes have won each of the last three Big Ten Championships, they're expected to contend for the College Football Playoff again, and they've finished with a top-five ranking in three of the last four seasons.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.